China defends barring rights chief from Hong Kong

China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang (left) said allowing or not allowing someone's entry is China's sovereign right, a day after Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth said he was denied entry into Hong Kong. PHOTOS: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - China on Monday (Jan 13) defended barring the head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) from entering Hong Kong, saying non-governmental organisations were to blame for political unrest in the semi-autonomous city and should "pay the proper price".

Mr Kenneth Roth was supposed to give a press conference in Hong Kong this week to unveil the New York-based group's latest global survey, but he said on Sunday he was turned back by authorities at the city's airport.

China last month announced sanctions on American NGOs, including HRW, in retaliation for the passage of a US bill backing Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

"Allowing or not allowing someone's entry is China's sovereign right," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing.

"Plenty of facts and evidence show that the relevant NGO has through various means supported anti-China radicals, encouraged them to engage in extremist, violent and criminal activity, and incited Hong Kong independence separatist activities," Mr Geng said.

"They bear major responsibility for the current chaos in Hong Kong. These organisations should be punished, and should pay the proper price."

Mr Roth joins a growing list of openly critical academics, researchers, politicians and activists who have been refused entry in recent years.

Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet was denied a visa renewal without reason in 2018 after he hosted a talk with the leader of a small and now banned independence party at the city's press club.

Last September, an American academic was barred from entering after he testified in a Congressional hearing alongside prominent Hong Kong democracy activists.

Hong Kong has been battered by nearly seven months of occasionally violent protests, its biggest political crisis in decades.

Millions have turned out on the streets of the semi-autonomous financial hub to demand greater democratic freedoms.

Mr Roth said he had hoped to "spotlight Beijing's deepening assault on international efforts to uphold human rights" during his visit to Hong Kong.

"The refusal to let me enter Hong Kong vividly illustrates the problem," he said.

"Even though I've been able to freely enter Hong Kong before, this time, for the first time, they blocked me," he said in a video posted to Twitter.

Mr Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said that when Mr Roth asked why he was prevented from entering Hong Kong, he was only told that it was "immigration reasons".

"What we believe is that he was stopped because the Chinese government is afraid to have the world know what they are doing to the people of Hong Kong and the people of China," Mr Robertson told AFP in Bangkok.

The unrest that began last June is the biggest crisis the former British colony has faced since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Under the terms of the handover, Hong Kong enjoys unique freedoms unseen on the mainland, but in recent years fears have increased that these liberties are being chipped away as Beijing exerts more control over the territory.

China and the Hong Kong administration have refused to cede to the protesters' demands, which include fully free elections in the city, an inquiry into alleged police misconduct, and amnesty for the nearly 6,500 people arrested during the movement - nearly a third of them under the age of 20.

Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club, which was to host Mr Roths' press conference on Wednesday, said in a statement it was concerned that the city's government was using the immigration department to "act punitively against organisations and media representatives it does not agree with, which is a violation of the commitment to free expression and free speech in Hong Kong law."

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